In this Turf War, Kids Are the Prize

By Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

In part because of the Alec Baldwin–Kim Basinger custody battle, the controversial concept of Parental Alienation is now being debated extensively in the media. Parental Alienation often arises after a divorce or separation, as one parent turns the children against the other parent, often employing false allegations to do so. Baldwin claims that he is the target parent of PA.

Misguided women’s advocates assert that PA is a myth used by abusive fathers to blame their ex–wives when their children are hostile to them. Recently, Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women, condemned PA as “junk science, junk justice.” NOW, the Family Violence Prevention Fund, and a dozen other women’s groups signed on to a complaint filed against the United States this month with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. The complaint claims that American courts victimize abused mothers by “frequently awarding child custody to abusers.”

In reality, when domestic violence allegations are made, judges take them very seriously, preferring to ”err on the side of caution” even when evidence is lacking. By contrast, fathers who are targets of false accusations and parental alienation can only protect their relationships with their children by financing expensive legal battles.

Despite the controversy, PA is a common phenomenon which has been well–documented and widely supported in the mental health community. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 “high conflict” divorce cases over a 12 year period and found that elements of PA were present in the vast majority of the cases studied.

The pain that alienating mothers (or, in some cases, alienating fathers) visit upon their children would be hard to understate. In a new Psychology Today article devoted to this controversy, Michelle Martin, who was a victim of PA as a child, recalls:

“You were either on my mother’s side or against her, and if you were on her side, you had to be against my father. She was so angry at him…you couldn’t possibly have a relationship with him if you wanted one with her.”

Martin describes her late father as a gentle, caring man who refused to criticize her mother. She says that she was so afraid of losing her mother’s approval that she bought into her alienation campaign against her father, including her mother’s systematic attempts to convince her that her father had been abusive. Martin says:

“I still, to this day, have to live with the mean things I said to him. The letters that I wrote to him. There are things I did purposely to hurt him.”

Family law mediators J. Michael Bone, Ph.D. and Michael R. Walsh Esq. explain that in PA situations children fear abandonment, and “live in a state of chronic upset and threat of reprisal.” Bone and Walsh note that when children “express positive approval of the absent parent, the consequences can be very serious…The child is continually being put through various loyalty tests…the alienating parent thus forces the child to choose [between] parents…in direct opposition to a child’s emotional well–being.”

Some parental alienators go to extreme or even demented lengths. In the Canadian PA caseRogerson v. Tessaro, the Ontario Court of Appeal found that when the children went to visit their father, the mother “failed to inform him about the children’s medications, or to give him their prescription drugs, so that they would return home from visits with him sicker than when they left.”

ABC’s John Stossel, who has covered PA on several occasions in recent weeks, describes one “heartbreaking” case he filmed for his TV show 20/20:

“A divorced father went to see his five kids for what he thought would be a full–day visit. He was entitled to that, under court order, and the court also ordered the mother not to discourage the children from spending time with their father. But she clearly had poisoned his children’s minds against him. The father just stood outside his ex–wife’s house and begged his children, ‘Would you like to go out with me today?’ ‘No,’ said one kid after another. Then the mother ordered the kids back into her house.

“What comes through on the tape is the unbridled satisfaction of the mother and the helplessness of the father.”

Parental Alienation is child abuse. Courts need to do more to protect children from alienation, not dismiss it.

  • Tallahassee Democrat